U.S. President Bill Clinton’s victory in getting Congress in line on the WTO question was capped by a triumphant New York Times Op-Ed piece by him about why China should be in the World Trade Organization. There are many good reasons why, but Clinton’s argument that this will “save” China and make it safe for U.S. investment fails the test. Worse, yet, Clinton employs his trademark baby-boomer spin to reassure Americans that they are in for a feel-good, commitment-free commitment.

Savoring the victory of the moment, yet anxious to secure his legacy, the president muses that “China’s imminent entry into the World Trade Organization . . . can be the most important development in our relationship with that country since we normalized ties in 1979.”

He then falls into a condescending line of reasoning suggesting that getting China into the WTO is a U.S. victory. “By agreeing with us on its terms of entry into the WTO, China has chosen to work within the international system. By enacting permanent normal trade relations, we have validated that choice, bolstering leaders who favor cooperation, taking an emotional issue away from hardliners.”

For some reason, the words “China” and “change” are frequently paired. The idea of changing China, in both senses of the word, animates the Clinton argument. It’s the old missionary impulse in new packaging: saving China, changing China. “It has asked us for help in building the expertise to make these changes . . .” China will be brought to see the light of the American way.

“In return, we have agreed only to maintain the access China already enjoys to our market.” What better underscores the notion that this is a victory for the United States in an American world than to suggest that China needs to do all the adapting?

Clinton then sets up a false dichotomy by dividing China into two camps, not so subtly suggesting that Chinese who follow U.S. policy are more reasonable and less tyrannical than their “hardline” colleagues.

“Hardliners in China opposed WTO membership because China’s closed economic system reinforces their political control,” said the president. “More reform-minded leaders understand that, in a global economy, the system must become more open and competitive.”

Yet there are surely tyrannical types in power who will benefit from the WTO, and democratic types who will suffer, enabling the elite to consolidate control over China as the poor get poorer.

Clinton overstates the case when he claims that the WTO is China’s only hope for survival, its only chance “to meet its mounting challenges and avoid internal upheaval and disintegration.” This kind of talk is, to borrow an expression from British Foreign Minister Robin Cook “pure poppycock.”

A cogent argument can be made that just the opposite is true: that joining WTO will wreak havoc on China, bringing economic dislocation, unemployment in the millions, growing impoverishment of the countryside, loss of protective tariffs and deep vulnerability to the capricious tides of international capital flows. Clinton admits as much when he says that “tens of millions of Chinese citizens will no longer depend on the government for everything from their paycheck to their housing to their health care.” He touts the withering of the state without giving a clue as to how housing, paychecks and health care will then be provided.

Clinton clearly wants us to believe over-the-top rhetoric about how China in the WTO is a win-win situation that will change the world. But in a rare moment of candor, he admits that “the most immediate benefits will be economic.”

Beneath the prose is a domestic political argument that has about as much to do with what’s good for China as British arguments in favor of the Opium War a century and a half ago. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants China to play by international rules — that much is obvious. But even if one chooses to believe that the blind pursuit of profit under WTO rules has a humane side — that is, there may be some trickle-down Americanization along the way — China’s accession to the WTO needs to be evaluated not for what it does for the U.S., but for what it will do for China.

The president’s lawyerly choice of words is instructive. Every time he’s about to say something big, he inserts an escape clause, such as “Of course, that is only an opportunity, not a guarantee.” He uses the verb “can” with clinical precision, as in “can be the most important,” while shunning stronger words such as “will” or even “might,” as if to hint at the possibility of something happening, but taking no responsibility for it.

More curiously, he uses the word “regime” twice, referring not to the friendly reformers in Beijing, but to international institutions and human rights. Is this a Freudian slip from a democrat accused of being soft on dictatorial regimes?

Clinton draws a line in the sand between himself and a cast of imaginary “hardliners,” (presumably anyone who is against the WTO), blaming those who “seek to stoke anti-American nationalism.” Yet it is hard to think of a single Chinese politician, hardline or otherwise, who has done as much harm to U.S.-China relations as the precision hit on the China Embassy in Belgrade by U.S. jets serving in Clinton’s “humanitarian” war.

“America must continue to support from the outside the struggle for human rights on the inside . . .” is a classic Clintonesque formulation that lets him have his cake and eat it, too. It’s like saying it’s OK to pressure China as long as it doesn’t interfere in China’s internal affairs.

“We do not want to see a strong China that seeks confrontation. Nor do we want to see a weak China, beset by internal conflicts and social dislocation, becoming a vast zone of instability in Asia,” he adds, revealing his shrewd Machiavellian side. As any policymaker will tell you, a China that is neither too strong nor too weak maximizes U.S. interests, just as a divided but stable Korea favors the U.S. balance of power.

“At stake is how China evolves over a decade or more. Will it resist globalization, or harness it to meet human needs? Will it reject popular demands for more freedom and accountability, or achieve the stability that comes only from letting people shape their own lives? Will it disregard global rules, or work within them?” In subliminal terms, Clinton portrays China as a fallen country, a country in trouble. Being the man he is, he would like to save it, or at least help it get back on its feet again.

In an oblique warning to Japan and Korea, Clinton concludes — without supporting arguments, other than conjuring up the image of a great wheel — that positive developments in Asia requires a continued U.S. military presence. “If tensions between North and South Korea decrease and if China continues to open up, we may be tempted to draw back. We must not do so. For we are not in Asia simply to respond to danger, but to be a balance wheel.”

Clinton’s position paper on the WTO and China is a compelling document from a master wordsmith, but it is based on faulty logic and fudged promises that raise more questions than answers.

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